Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Yapple-Dapple (Apple galette, cognac caramel sauce)

We are now in undisputed apple season. In my hometown, September is always marked by the Apple Peach Festival, sadly this year just an apple festival after the late spring frost laid waste to the peach blossoms. Intending to console myself with copious amounts of apples, I had my heart set on tarte Tatin: a pastry crust baked upside-down atop a layer of deeply caramelized apples. This led to my next revelation, however: that recipe seemed somehow intimidating. I feel like "effortless elegance" is more my wheelhouse, so I split the difference: an easy apple galette, gussied up with cognac caramel sauce.

Gastronomically gussied
In French cuisine, a galette refers to various types of freeform crusty cakes and tarts, or a Breton galette: a buckwheat pancake with savory fillings. The most recognizable interpretation in the US is a flat pastry crust cooked on a baking sheet, folded up around a fruit filling. This is an incredible cheat: it's quite possibly the laziest interpretation of pastry there is, but still has a rustic, shabby-chic elegance that allows you to serve it to company with a straight face (French names also always help make anything seem fancy). The cognac caramel helps seal the deal, upping the fancy quotient by a considerable margin.

Pictured: deal sealing
While the pastry is, in fact, much easier than pie, caramel comes with its own intimidation factor. Lots of people melt together butter and brown sugar and call this "caramel," I'm even guilty of this myself, but real caramel comes from toasting sugar to induce Maillard browning reactions that give it that rich flavor and golden glow. This isn't terribly hard, but it is a labor of love. Making caramel from scratch involves roughly twenty minutes of standing at the stove and stirring away. I recommend comfy flip-flops and your favorite playlist.

Hard labor
Making your own caramel is an incredibly rewarding experience because of the implicit science behind it: basically, sugar is a crystal at room temperature, but it doesn't behave as a metal does, melting and solidifying at specific temperatures. Instead, heat breaks sugar down into component parts of carbon and water (hydrogen and oxygen). You'll notice the sugar loses a fair amount of volume in the process. Sugar collapses into liquid around 340 F it turns to liquid and around 360 F it begins to brown. Watching the sugar brown and melt is something I find ceaselessly fascinating. It does require utmost care: remember at all times that you are working with boiling hot, extra-sticky molten sugar. Defenders of Medieval castles used boiling oil instead of caramel only because it was more costly and laborious, but get hot caramel on your skin and you will aver it is far more unpleasant. In the end, however, your efforts will be rewarded with a delicious apple tart with perfectly crumbling pastry and a velvety caramel sauce full of sophisticated, boozy bite. 

Elegant but effortless

Apple galette, cognac caramel sauce
I used Gala apples for classic red peels, but I think Granny Smiths are the superior baking apple: the extra tartness is like magic for desserts. Fuji, Pink Lady, Ginger Gold, Jonathan, or Jonagolds are also all sound choices.

For the pastry:
1 1/2 cups pastry flour
1/4 cup white sugar
1/4 teaspoon sea salt, finely ground
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, cold, cubed
4 tablespoons ice water

For the cognac caramel sauce:
1 cup white sugar
6 tablespoons butter, cubed
1/2 cup light cream, scant
4 tablespoons cognac (I used Courvoisier VSOP)
1/2 teaspoon sea salt, finely ground 

For the filling:
4 apples, quartered, cored, and sliced
1/2 lemon, freshly juiced
2 tablespoons white sugar 
2 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon, ground

To make the pastry, quickly toss the flour, sugar, and salt in a large bowl or pulse in a food processor. Pulsing the processor, or using a pastry cutter, cut in the butter until there are roughly pea-sized clumps forming, with still a few chunks of butter and a spot or two of dry mix.

Cue the pulse to begin
Toss or pulse in the water one tablespoon at a time, until the dough begins to come together. 

Turn out onto a sheet of parchment and knead with your hands until it forms a solid mass. Add another tablespoon of water if it looks too dry or won't hold together. Roll into a ball, press down into a disc, wrap in plastic, and chill for 1 hour or more.

To make the caramel sauce, warm a small, heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add the sugar and cook, stirring constantly, for about 10 minutes. First it will seem to clump and coagulate, turning golden over time. Eventually, it will seem to become increasingly wet, finally melting into a rich toffee-colored liquid

Mid-phase caramel creation
Carefully add the butter, a pat at a time, which will spatter and simmer as it hits the hot caramel. Stir until all the butter is completely melted in, then about 1 minute more to bring the temperature back up, then very slowly stream in the cream (it also hisses and spits), stirring gently until combined. 

Bring to a boil for 5 more minutes, stirring constantly, then remove from the heat and stir in the cognac and salt. Allow to cool, completely. The mixture should be thick, yet fluid, falling in long, silky ribbons. If it's too thick, whisk in a tablespoon of cognac at a time until it loosens up. Too thin? Boil it a few more minutes. 

Toss the apple slices in a large bowl with the lemon juice. Toss the sugar, flour, and cinnamon in a small bowl, then toss to coat the apples. Set aside.

Toss up
Preheat the oven to 425 F and roll out the pastry to a roughly 12" round and place on a sheet of parchment on a  silicone baking mat on a baking sheet.

Take the apple slices, eschewing any extra juices, and arrange in the center of pastry, leaving about two inches of the edge uncovered.

Drizzle 1/4 cup of caramel sauce over the apples, then gently fold the edges up around the filling, crimping as necessary. Bake until deeply bronzed and golden-brown, the caramel blackening the apples at the edges, 33-35 minutes.

Ready to go
Allow the galette to cool on the pan for 15 minutes or so, then remove to a cutting board, slice, and serve immediately with extra cognac caramel. Some vanilla ice cream or cognac whipped cream would be a welcome addition. 


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